A wild fire in the Kaligaon forest area in Champawat district, Monday, April 5, 2021. Photo: PTI.
New Delhi: At a time when efforts by the Uttarakhand state administration in controlling the numerous forest fires that ravaged the hilly state over the past fortnight appeared inadequate, scattered rains have helped to an extent.
While around 1,130 forest fires have been reported in Uttarakhand since January this year, they have grown in intensity and size over the past few weeks. The rise in temperature, prevailing dry conditions and strong winds have all contributed to these fires. In all, around 1,540 hectares of forest cover have been gutted. The fires this year have also claimed four lives, including those of two forest department staffers.
Till Monday, April 5, evening, there were over 85 forest fires that were still burning across the state and 165 acres of forests were damaged in a span of 24 hours. The worst affected areas due to the fires are the districts of Pauri Garhwal, which so far had 269 fires, followed by Tehri (116), Bageshwar (100), Pithoragarh (94) and Almora (93).
To combat these fires, the Uttarakhand government had pressed over 12,000 forest department personnel into service. Along with local residents, volunteers and members of the Van Panchayat, they have been trying to control the fires. Incidentally, in 2004, the state government had constituted these forest groups so that forest fires could be prevented and tackled with community participation.
In view of the difficult terrain and to cut the fire sweep at critical points, the state had also requisitioned the services of the Air Force that pressed its helicopters into fire-dousing operations. A number of MI-17 helicopters have been used to spray water over forests Tehri and Pauri districts to prevent the advance of fire into residential areas.
The fire fighting teams received big help in the form of sudden rains that lashed several parts of the state on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.
The nodal officer of the state forest department Man Singh said the sudden rains had helped douse many of the fires. He said the department expected the number of fires to reduce following the rains, which have been forecast till Thursday.
Meanwhile, the director general of police, Ashok Kumar, said the state police has also pitched in its resources to control the fires.
The issue of fires ravaging the state’s forests also came up before the Uttarakhand high court recently which took suo motu cognisance of the issue and summoned the principal chief conservator of forests to provide the response of the government. During the proceedings, the high court asked what preparations had been taken over the years to prevent forest fires. It also directed the official, Rajiv Bhartari, to attend further meetings on the issue.
The court also expressed concern that the smoke emanating from the fires is adversely impacting the health of the local residents and leading to breathing problems among many.
Three years ago too, the high court had while taking cognisance of large-scale forest fires directed the state government to appoint at least 10,000 people as ‘fire watchers’ to prevent such incidents. In its response then, the state government had submitted that around 90% of the forest fires were “man made”. This had evoked surprise from the high court since many of the villages in the state have witnessed large-scale migration.
The issue of forest fires is critical for Uttarakhand’s economy too as the state has around 38,000 square kilometres of forests, which cover nearly 71% of its geographical area, and provide a source of livelihood to a large number of citizens.